Until recently, the traffic around Garfield Elementary School before and after classes was a mess. The streets around the school were congested, cars blocked entrances to nearby homes, and student safety was a concern.
Through a partnership with the city of Yakima and the Yakima School District, things are moving more smoothly this fall. Jerome and Fairbanks avenues were switched to one-way streets and new sidewalks were added.
“Fairbanks and Jerome are both narrow streets, and you have buses in there and you have kids being dropped off and picked up in all different directions,” Scott Schafer, interim assistant city manager, told the Yakima City Council during a study session last week. “Now they loop around. Whether you are in a school bus or a private vehicle, you are being dropped off on the right-hand side. So this is extremely safe now.”
While the improvements have made things better around Garfield, the city has a long list of other sidewalk and safety projects needed near schools. The cost to install missing sidewalks within a half-mile radius of all elementary schools in the city would cost $81 million, according to city staff. That’s a tall order given available funding.
Safe walking routes to school have been one of the council’s strategic priorities, and Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez asked for more discussion at an upcoming meeting. Councilman Jason White agreed.
“I think the walking routes to school are in horrible condition. They are probably one of the biggest concerns for families on the east side. I hope we can find some alternative pathways to getting more sidewalks,” he said, adding that using existing approaches will take “a hundred years” to fund.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has a grant program called Safe Routes to School that aims to increase the number of children walking and biking to school, with funding targeted at kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. City staff members said the program has become more competitive over the past few years. In the previous funding cycle, the state received more than $100 million in requests, with just 1 in 5 projects funded.
The improvements at Garfield Elementary involved $200,000 in Safe Routes to School funding. The city also has a $300,000 project at McClure Elementary planned with Safe Routes to School funds that calls for new sidewalks, an improved roadway crossing, and flashers. Schafer said the city is obtaining the right of way now for the project and will start work when school gets out.
The city has requested funding for McKinley and Apple Valley elementary schools through the state, but hasn’t yet been successful, Schafer said.
Schafer said one thing that would help to move things forward would be to hire a new city engineer, which is in process, and a traffic engineering supervisor, slated to happen next year. He said those two positions would be involved in evaluating sidewalk needs and streetlights, conducting traffic studies and working with the school district to identify additional issues. The city needs to prioritize projects and make sure they’re shovel-ready and eligible for funding.
He said the city has made sidewalk improvements through other funding sources as well, pointing to upgrades near Adams and Washington elementary schools in 2018 as one project.
Collectively, 25 percent of Yakima School District students use the bus to get to school, while 75 percent walk or take a private vehicle, with most of them traveling by vehicle, Schafer said. He said there are a fair number of students who live near one school who attend another school. Gilbert Elementary has students who live in the Adams or Garfield school areas but are bused to Gilbert because of capacity, he said.
Representatives from the Yakima School District did not comment by the newspaper’s deadline.
Mayor Kathy Coffey said the council had a number of study sessions about school traffic safety and meetings with the school district and that it needs to establish goals.
Councilman Brad Hill agreed, saying the council should decide what it wants to accomplish before there’s a change in leadership early next year. He also said there are some issues that might not be in the city’s purview and might fall to other entities, such as the idea of a “walking school bus” where an adult accompanies a group of children walking to school.
“I want to accomplish everything that’s in our lane,” he said.